Open Letter from Community and Human Rights Organizations to President Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder and the United States Congress on the September 24 FBI Raids of Activists’ Homes

 

Dear President Obama,
 

We write as a group of national, statewide and community organizations, to share our concern about the FBI raids that occurred on Friday, September 24, 2010.  We are also deeply concerned about the grand jury subpoenas that were served on the victims of those raids and others.  Although they were initially withdrawn, several have recently been re-issued. These raids come on the heels of a report by the Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General documenting recent examples of the FBI monitoring activists engaged in protected political speech and never involved in criminal behavior.

These raids suggest an ongoing trend of intrusive government surveillance of progressive activists in the United States.  Prosecutions for protected political activity have a chilling effect, not just in the communities in which they occur, but also on the First Amendment rights of all Americans. We call on Congress to initiate an investigation similar to the 1970's Church Commission into FBI activities that appear to be targeting legitimate political speech and assembly.  We also call on the Department of Justice to revisit and amend the Attorney General’s Guidelines and the FBI’s implementing Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide (DIOG) to better respect fundamental constitutional protections. 

Articles about the raids report that, according to government agents, there was no imminent threat—but that the warrants cited “material support for terrorism” as a reason for the searches.  We are concerned, however, that the material support laws are being used to harass and scare progressive activists as well as Muslim, South Asian, and Arab communities in a way that reaches beyond Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project and is in violation of First Amendment rights.    

Law enforcement scrutiny—whether in the form of covert surveillance, raids conducted in an effort to seek information about protected political activity, or grand jury subpoenas demanding detailed information about protected political activity—discourages activists and political dissidents from exercising their legitimate and protected First Amendment freedoms of speech and assembly. 

The raids targeted anti-war, Palestinian solidarity and Colombian solidarity activists and union members.  The recurring nature of such targeted surveillance and policing of activists working on these particular issues conveys the impression, for many, that although the rights to free speech and assembly are constitutionally protected, certain types of speech enjoy less protection.  This flies in the face of the principle behind these critical constitutional protections – that it is not the content of speech but rather the right to express it that is protected.  There is a lengthy record, indeed, of grand juries being used to intimidate and harass activists, and we caution the Obama administration not to become part of that history.

The timing of these actions gives further cause for concern.  These raids were conducted within a month and a half of an election.  This is not the first time that such actions were taken in the run up to an election: in 2004, during the weeks and months before the presidential election, the government contacted thousands of mostly Muslim men for “voluntary interviews” with the FBI in Operation Frontline.  Such programs create a severe chilling effect on the willingness of individuals from vulnerable communities to engage in protected political activity, even to vote.  Engaging in such surveillance and policing near an election when there is no imminent threat of danger sends a message that the government may retaliate against people exercisizing   First Amendment rights.

The Attorney General’s Guidelines that govern FBI activities have been steadily eroded, resulting in powers that allow the FBI to identify targets for investigation based at least in part on their race, ethnicity or religion.  The Guidelines allow the FBI to open “assessments” with no factual predicate (i.e., without any basis at all for the individualized suspicion constitutionally required to justify a stop or search), and eliminate many of the protections put in place to reign in FBI abuses laid bare by the Church Commission that investigated COINTELPRO.  The current Guidelines, and the DIOG that implements them, harken back to the abuses that lead to the initial restrictions imposed by the Attorney General’s Guidelines in the first place. 

We request that Congress initiate a robust investigation, modeled on the Church Committee, to examine FBI activities, including the practice of targeting protected political speech and assembly.  We meanwhile ask the Department of Justice to amend the FBI Guidelines and implement the DIOG to better respect fundamental constitutional norms.  The September raids are part of a larger pattern, reflecting a disturbing trend that must be stopped if our nation is to remain committed to justice and equality.

Cc:  Eric Holder, Attorney General

Robert Mueller, Director, Federal Bureau of Investigation

Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division

United States Congress

For PDF copy of letter please click here.